Earth burst!

The Guardian Wednesday December 6 1995

Camilla Berens on warrior worries

EARTH FIRST'S mass trespass at Whatley Quarry in Somerset on Monday was one of the few times the network of radical activists has put its name to a national action. The intention was to put the wind up the Amey Roadstone Corporation, but behind the scenes, it was also seen as a way of attracting new people. Is Earth First! running out of steam?

When EF! came to Britain in 1991, it captures the imagination of a new generation of environmentalists impatient for change. Inspired by the immediacy of non-violent direct action, it quickly went from a core of six groups to a network of 60.

British Earth First began by following the American network's focus on forestry. But, after the Dongas' protest at Twyford Down in 1992, the direction shifted to challenging the £23 billion road programme. It is widely accepted that its members were responsible for high-profile, campaigns against new road schemes. More recently, this energy has shifted to quarrying and opencast mining.

Sustaining such campaigns may be taking a toll. In the last six months, experienced activists have moved on. Anna-Maye, 24, left after four years to become a journalist. She says the network needs to become more professional. «The culture is anarchic and free-spirited. There's a strong antipathy to discipline. If you're trying to organise things, this can grind you down as much as the physical dangers.» Paul, another retired EF!er, thinks the network has lost its way. «It was intended to be a mass movement,» he says. «The movement's there but not the mass. How do you get more people involved?»

This strikes at the heart of the problem for the new generation of civil rights and environmental activism. After two years campaigning against -- and defying -- the Criminal Justice and Public Order Acts, they face a classic dilemma: they must broaden their support base or implode.

Andy, a 22-year-old researcher and one of the team which publishes Earth First's action update, is optimistic. He sees development as cyclical. «Groups rise and fall but overall EF! is still growing. It's not a mass movement but it's putting down a substantial base to build on.»

He claims the international EF! network is also broadening, with groups in 37 countries, including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Spain and even former Yugoslavia. «People are beginning to understand that there needs to be a balance,» he says. «It's important to support major direct action campaigns but also to build links in local communities.»

In a perverse way, Earth First! is a victim of its own success. A non-hierarchical network of independent groups, it has now become so decentralised that, as a national identity, nobody is quite sure what it is. In the latest issue of its magazine, Do Or Die, one activist comments on the rise of the ego-warrior -- «bolshy, mouthy, self-righteous ranters» who are «frightening away» anyone with the nerve to wear a suit or live in a centrally-heated house.

«Things are changing,» says John, a 19-year-old who joined the network at 15. «Campaigns are getting more sophisticated. The campaign against the Newbury by-pass is acutely aware that it needs to be welcoming to newcomers.» But, he admits, «in general we still need to master the art of communicating.»